Tag Archives: Holiday Commentary

Commentary for Shavuot

2 Jun

On Shavuot we celebrate receiving the Torah, and what better way could there be to show our appreciation for this precious gift than by utilizing it? Thus, we stay up all night studying Torah, and then, during morning services, we do a public reading. Whenever we have a holiday that tells the story of a specific moment in time that is related in the Bible, our Torah reading for that day will either tell that exact story or tell the story of the closest available section while delegating the duties of telling the exact story to the section of the Bible in which it is contained. On Purim we read the background of the Purim story from the Torah, followed by the story itself in the Book of Ester. On the first day of Passover we read about that day’s events- the paschal sacrifice, the slaying of the firstborn, and the exodus from Egypt. On the seventh day of Passover, when the Red Sea was split, we read about the splitting of the sea and the ultimate defeat of the Egyptian army at God’s hand, while the Israelites begin their trek to the Promised Land. On Shavuot, then, we naturally read about the giving of the Torah and all the preparations therefore, from the moment the Israelites arrived at Mt. Sinai up through the end of the climactic revelation and the reading of the Ten Commandments.

 

Unlike the other holidays, however, the Torah reading for Shavuot does not stop there. Instead it continues for one more aliyah in which Moses starts to expound on some of the laws we just heard. What, exactly, falls into the category of the “sculpted image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or the earth below or the water beneath the earth” that we have just been forbidden from making? And if we can’t use these items as a way to focus ourselves on our God as our neighbors do for their gods then how shall we worship our God without violating this commandment? If we are to make an altar then what means and methods of construction are acceptable for it? And what manner of conduct that our neighbors might engage in during their ceremonies should we engage or not engage in?

 

These questions whose answers Moses provides set the tone for the process of Jewish legal thought, but their placement here and their inclusion in the Shavuot Torah reading teaches us another important value of Jewish learning: there is always more to learn. The story of receiving the Torah does not end with the glitz and glamour of the revelation at Sinai. It continues from the moment afterwards right up until this very day. After Shavuot there are no holidays in sight for almost four months, but as we learn from the Shavuot Torah reading, our celebration of receiving the Torah must still continue.

Commentary for Concluding Days of Pesach

16 Apr

The Torah reading for the seventh day of Passover is focused on the crossing of the Red Sea and the accompanying Song of the Sea with which the Israelites praise God for saving them. The haftarah is the twenty-second chapter of II Samuel, which contains a personal prayer from (not yet King) David thanking God for saving him from King Saul, who has ordered his execution. The obvious connection between the two passages is that both contain a prayer that thanks God for salvation from a more powerful foe, but the connection between the two runs deeper than that.

 

David’s prayer is reprinted as Psalm 18, with a few minor variations to make it more generic. Tradition teaches us that King David did this as a gift for the Jewish People, providing those who have gone through the same turmoil that he did with words to expression the emotions that they might not be able to find for themselves. The Song of the Sea opens with the well-known phrase “Thus sang Moses and the Children of Israel this song to the Lord (Ex. 15:1).” What is less well known is that this phrase can also be translated as “Thus will sing Moses and the Children of Israel this song to the Lord.” This alternate reading, like David’s transformation of II Samuel 22 into Psalm 18, changes the song from a one-time expression of gratitude into a prescription for future generations for when they need to praise God.

 

On Passover we celebrate both our freedom from slavery and our birth as a nation, but with this celebration must come the question of what we are doing with this freedom. This freedom is but one of the many gifts we have each been given, both as individuals and as a nation, both by God and by those that have come before us. If we, both as individuals and as a nation, do not make use of our freedom to explore these other gifts of culture, religion, and personal ability and expression, then we are letting God’s gift of freedom go to waste.

Commentary for Passover

10 Apr

In Judaism, holiness is marked by difference. To show something is holy we treat it differently, either by treating it with extra respect or by only using it at special designated times. On holy days we act differently than we normally would, either by performing specific actions we otherwise wouldn’t or by refraining from performing certain actions that we would perform if the day were not so holy.   The entire concept of the Passover seder is structured around answering the question posed at the beginning of the story: “why is this night different from all other nights?”

So at what point does the Passover seder become different from all other nights? The holiday Kiddush helps make the night different from a regular night, but we say Kiddush on every holiday, so saying Kiddush with the proper insertions for Passover is no surprise. Next we wash our hands without saying a blessing. While this might seem different because we usually say Kiddush then wash our hands with a blessing and then say Mozti, it is actually quite normal, as we often wash our hands before eating, but if we are not going to say Motzi, we don’t say a blessing when we do it.   Because we have several more steps to get through (and some food to eat) before we get to Motzi, it is no surprise that we would wash our hands without saying a blessing.

The next step in the seder is Karpas, where we eat a green vegetable (usually parsley or celery) dipped in saltwater. Eating a vegetable in and of itself is not unusual, but where things become different is when we dip the Karpas in saltwater before eating it. If “on all other nights we don’t dip [our food] even one time,” then the first time that we dip our food is clearly a point of differentiation between this night and all others.

Karpas is perhaps the most overlooked step in the seder. It is often glossed over with simple explanations such as the green vegetable representing the springtime and the saltwater representing our tears during our slavery in Egypt, but the true meaning of dipping our Karpas in saltwater is much deeper than that.

The word Karpas actually has nothing to do with vegetables. It actually means a fine white fabric (Ester 1:6). The association with vegetables began when the rabbis were looking for a food to dip in saltwater to symbolize this fabric and picked a green vegetable because the word “karpas” sounds like the Persian word “karafs,” which means “a plant of which salad is made” and sounds even more like the Greek word “karpos,” meaning “‘fruit’” of the land (or river)” “Fruit of the land” is the literal translation of the Hebrew word for vegetables and is found in the blessing we say over them, so the rabbis chose a green vegetable to represent the “karpas” because the similar-sounding words would help people to form a connection between the fabric being symbolized and the vegetable they were dipping in saltwater.

The connection between fine fabric and Passover comes from the story of Joseph. When Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery they ripped his fancy coat off. The brothers then dipped the coat in the blood of a goat to fool their father Jacob into believing that Joseph had died, while in reality Joseph was en route to becoming the first Jewish slave in Egypt.

Karpas, representing the beginning of Jewish slavery in Egypt, is a very appropriate place to begin part of the night that is unique to Passover, but there is one more important connection between Joseph and the theme of the night. Passover is not only about our times as slaves, but about God bringing us out of Egypt and back to the Land of Israel, as was promised to Abraham. On his deathbed Joseph gathers his brothers around him and asks them to swear to him that when God returns the Israelites to the Land of Israel that his bones be taken with them and buried there (Gen. 50:24-25). Although many generations have passed, when God does finally fulfill the promise made to Abraham to liberate his descendents from their bondage, Moses makes sure to fulfill the promise that Joseph’s brothers made to him (Ex. 13:19).

The difference in the relationship between Joseph and his brothers at the end of his life compared to their youth is obviously quite striking. To go from selling someone into slavery to solemnly vowing to fulfill that person’s dying wishes to bring him comfort on his deathbed is a pretty extraordinary change. Interestingly, this change is also symbolized by the contrast of the two times at which we dip during the seder. The first time we dip is Karpas, when we dip our green vegetable into saltwater. The green vegetable on its own is perfectly palatable, but we add saltwater to it in an act designed to symbolize our sadness and make the taste less pleasant. Similarly, Joseph’s life was going along swimmingly until his brothers decided to sell him into slavery. The second time we dip at the seder is when we dip the bitter herb into charoset.   The bitter herb is obviously intended to not taste very good, but we add sweet charoset to make the bitter pill easier to swallow. When Joseph is entering the difficult period as he nears the end of his life, his brothers are there to comfort him and make life a little bit easier- and similarly, when their descendants were enslaved in Egypt, they all banded to together to make life a little bit easier, as symbolized by the small amount of charoset that we put on the bitter herb to make the difficult times slightly easier to bear.

Commentary for Purim

17 Mar

We often think of Purim as holiday about individuals. All of the major turning points in the story essential boil down to whatever decision King Achashverosh’s whims guide him to make at the time. His decisions are certainly influenced at different times by the actions of Ester, Mordechai, Haman, (and a few others), but even those actions are all undertaken and performed by each of those people as individuals. Similarly, Haman’s decision to bribe Achashverosh to allow him to annihilate the Jews is motivated by the actions of one single Jew among the crowd, Mordechai, refusing to bow to him.

 

What Purim really is, however, is a story about the power of individuals within the group. Haman was one of Achashverosh’s top advisors, but he was certainly not his only advisor. Any of the others could have come forward and tried to convince Achashverosh that authorizing the genocide of the Jewish People was a bad idea, using whatever angle- moral, financial, political- they thought would most appeal to the king. But none of them did, and so the decree went unopposed until Ester stepped up to plead with the king. In his role as king over the subjects of the Persian Empire, Achashverosh shows his ability to unite his subjects- as seen in the lavish party that dominates the first chapter of the megilah, to which representatives of all peoples and lands were invited to make merriment together- or to enable their worst inner demons by inviting them to participate in a genocide which chapter nine shows that they were all too eager to participate in, even with the knowledge that the Jews were now authorized to fight back.

 

On the Jewish side we see Ester get a lot of credit (and deservedly so) for saving the Jews, but if each individual Jew does not personally echo Ester’s question in 8:6, “For how can I passively witness the evil is going to befall my people, and how can I passively witness the destruction of my kindred?” and make the decision to take up arms and defend themselves, then the king’s decree allowing the Jews to defend themselves will not matter because they will not have the forces necessary to prevent the slaughter. The story of Purim is not just one about how our choices affect ourselves, but about they affect those around us as well.

Commentary for Simchat Torah

21 Nov

On Simchat Torah we read the end of the Torah, which coincides with the end of Moses’ life. The final chapter functions as a eulogy of sorts for Moses. We are told that his life’s work lives on in the form of Joshua being prepared to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land, and then that he died, that he was greatly missed by all of Israel, and finally we are given a few verses praising his greatness and his special place on our history.

 

The final three verses of the Torah read, “Never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord had known face to face. As evidenced by all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh and all his courtiers and all his land. And by all the great might and awesome power that Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel (Deut. 34:10-12).”

 

At first glance, the final verse is a little troubling. Moses dies now, outside of the Promised Land because not being allowed to the Promised Land is his punishment for not following God’s instructions in Numbers 20:7-13, creating a situation where an observer could have come to the conclusion that it was Moses, not God, who had the power to bring forth water from a rock. While Deut 34:11 makes it clear that it is referring to wondrous acts that “the Lord sent him to perform,” 34:12 simply refers to other amazing displays of power that “Moses performed” without explicitly making clear that it was from God, not Moses, that the power truly came. How could it be that in God’s own eulogy of Moses, God makes the very same mistake Moses was punished for making?

 

God does not make mistakes, so therefore a new interpretation is needed. Rashi provides this interpretation, saying that we should take the verses at their face value. 34:12 is, indeed talking about actions that Moses took, but the statement is not blasphemous because it is referring to regular human things that Moses did without any help from God. Rashi equates “great might,” which in the Hebrew literally translates to “strong hand” as carrying the Two Tablets down Mount Sinai. They were made of stone, so they were very heavy, and yet Moses willed himself to carrying them down the mountain, showing his strength of will and his determination not to disrespect this holy gift from God by putting it down on the dirty ground for even a moment. This amount of respect for God and God’s gifts to us is an example we should all follow.

 

Rashi identifies the “awesome power that Moses performed before the eyes of all Israeli” as throwing those same onto the ground, shattering them, when he came down the mountain only to be greeted by the sight of the Israelites abandoning God and worshipping the golden calf instead. By throwing the tablets down, Moses showed the Israelites that this was an extremely grave matter and they all needed to immediately stop and listen to him. This is the final lesson we learn from Moses in the Torah: It does not matter how often a leader talks with God or how many great deeds a leader is credited with; a leader who cannot effectively communicate with and influence the actions of the people is no leader at all.

Commentary for Shemini Atzeret

21 Nov

Shemini Atzeret is probably the strangest of the Jewish holidays- and that is assuming that you take the position that it is even its own holiday at all as opposed to just the final day of Sukkot. Even its name is strange. While the “Shemini” part clearly translates to “eighth,” (as in the either “the eighth day of Sukkot” or “the eighth day, starting from the first day of Sukkot), the “Atzeret” part is trickier. “Atzeret” can mean either “gathering” or “cessation.”

Despite the word never being used to describe it in the Torah, the Gemarah occasionally refers to Shavuot as a day of “Atzeret” as well. While this seems baffling at first, a closer examination reveals that these two holidays do share some quirky characteristics.   These are the only two holidays whose dates are not explicitly set forth in the Torah. While the Torah tells us that other holidays start “in the X month on the Y day,” these two holidays’ dates are deduced from the dates of other holidays. Shavuot is the day after the forty-ninth day after the first day of Passover, while Shemini Atzeret is the eighth day, starting from the first day of Sukkot. Thus, both of these holidays can be seen as a cessation of counting. Shavuot marks the end of the counting of the Omer, the seven-week period from the second day of Passover until Shavuot, during which it is a mitzvah to count each day. On Shemini Atzeret we cease counting not only the seven days of Sukkot necessary to deduce that today is the eight day- Shemini Atzeret, but also the seventy bulls sacrificed over the course of Sukkot (representing the other nations of the world, of which there are traditionally seventy). Shemini Atzeret completely breaks from the pattern of the sacrifices of Sukkot, which starts with thirteen on the first day and decreases by one on every successive day. By contrast, Shemini Atzeret has only one.

The bulls sacrificed on Sukkot are well known to many Jews nowadays not for their own mitzvah but for their inclusion in a debate recorded in the Gemarah (Shabbat 21b) about the proper way to light Chanukah candles. The school of Shamai says that we should light eight the first day, seven the second day and so on in accordance with the Sukkot sacrifices, which could not be performed at their proper time that year because the forces of Antiochus and their followers had rendered the Holy Temple impure. The school of Hillel, on the other hand, says that we should light one candle the first night, two the second night, and so on, due to the general principle of ma’alin bekodesh [v’ein moridin]- “we go up in matters of holiness [and do not go down].” While this principle is fairly easy to apply to Shavuot (we finish counting the Omer, then celebrate receiving the Torah, going from one mitzvah to all of them), we seem to run into a b it of a snag trying to apply it to Shemini Atzeret, where we go from the many sacrifices of Sukkot to just one for Shemini Atzeret.

The answer to this problem lies in the “gathering” facets of these two holidays. On Shavuot, all of the Jews, past, present, and future, were gathered around Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. The rabbis make much ado about the fact that every single person there accepted the Torah “as one voice (Ex. 24:3).” The reason that rabbis are so impressed with this is simply that they didn’t have to do so, but every last one of them still chose to do so.

Judaism applauds going above and beyond the call of duty, and that is what Shemini Atzeret is about. Unlike Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot, there is no obligation for every Jew to appear at the Holy Temple on Shemini Atzeret, and yet the Israelites would do so anyway. While the seventy bulls sacrificed on Sukkot represented the other nations of the world, the one sacrificed on Shemini Atzeret represented the Jewish People, who have chosen to go above and beyond the minimum requirements of the Noachide laws in order to be closer to God. In this way, on Shemini Atzeret, we are ma’alin bekodesh.

Combining these concepts, we can finally understand the name of Shemini Atzeret. The number seven in Judaism represents a sense of completeness. On Shavuot we have just finished the mitzvah of counting the Omer (seven weeks of seven days each) and now, as we begin an eighth week, we move on to something even bigger and better in accepting all of mitzvot in the Torah. On Shemini Atzeret we have finished the seven days of Sukkot with their seventy (7×10) obligatory sacrifices, and now, on the eighth day, we voluntarily gather together to oversee the performance of one more sacrifice to show our desire to go above and beyond the call of duty in service to God. On Shemini Atzeret we gather together to turn an end into a new beginning.

Commentary for Sukkot

16 Oct

One of the oldest metaphors used to describe the relationship between the Jewish People and God is that of a marriage. Dating back to Biblical times, this comparison has itself spawned many others that extend this metaphor involving many facets of Jewish life, but one of the most well-known envisions the three pilgrimage holidays- Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, as the stages of a marriage ceremony, with Passover representing the betrothal, Shavuot the marriage ceremony, and Sukkot the consummation.

 

Another, less well-known comparison, looks at this metaphor on a more individual level. It compares the relationship between God and each individual Jew at the time of the High Holidays as a marriage in crisis. We admit that we have done wrong, and on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we have an honest discussion with God to determine whether or not we want to put in the effort to make it work.

 

Coming a mere five days after Yom Kippur, Sukkot is our first chance to show God that we are truly committed to this relationship. Sukkot is a holiday of many mitzvot and customs, and many of them are geared towards helping us in this endeavor, either by prescribing actions that help us show our dedication directly or by serving as symbolic reminders of what we should be doing.

 

The Sukkot sacrifices show our willingness to give gifts to God, just as God has gifted us with the food that sustains us. In the Sukkah we expose ourselves to the elements, trusting in God that they will not harm us. The lulav, etrog, myrtle, and willow, which we are commanded to bring together on Sukkot, symbolize Jews of all different levels of knowledge and observance. Each night it is customary to sing songs and tell stories of biblical figures whose virtues we wish to emulate. We start on the first night with Abraham, who was renown for his generosity and for inviting others to dine with him in his tent, and so we also invite guests to dine with us in our sukkah, including the poor. Rabbi Moshe Bamberger teaches that the position of the s’chach (the roof of the sukkah)- constructed out of the leavings of the plant kingdom that are usually useless to humans for the purposes of construction or consumption- high above the bounty of the harvest being served on the table us teaches not to be haughty, take our position for granted, or look down on the poor, for we, too, may one day be in their situation. We have spent the past two weeks promising to be better. On Sukkot, we are given the chance to prove that we will be.